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Sunday, August 4, 2013

Five lessons from observing the development path of prodigies

Michael Kearney started talking at age four months and reading at eight months. He soaked up the elementary curriculum by the age of four, entered college at the age of six, and graduated at 10. His father, Kevin Kearney, observed that it was as though his son had a "rage to learn". 

Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887–1920) was an Indian mathematician who, with almost no formal training in pure mathematics, learned college-level mathematics by age 11, and generated his own theorems in number theory and Bernoulli numbers by age 13 .

Prodigies dazzle us with their virtuoso musical performances, quick and efficient chess moves, imaginative paintings, or brilliant mathematics. We presume that these prodigies have to just develop their one single skill, be it mathematics, piano, or chess. We also wrongly presume that they can develop these skills without any support from the outside environment. 

If we therefore understand the output paths of these prodigies, it will help us learn about how we can develop our own skills and excel in them. Let us learn five key lessons that are useful for all of us. 

Lesson 1: Only Innate talents do not determine the performance of prodigies, their practice is important

We tend to assume that prodigies are born with their 'full blown talent' because of their genetics and God-given gift. But this is not true. 

These early bloomers become attracted to a domain - an output like chess or maths - early due to their 'genetic inclinations', but they also need to engage in the domain to accelerate their learning. When engaged in their domain of interest, prodigies tend to focus like a laser beam, entering a state of "flow", in which the task is effortless and enjoyable, and time recedes in the background. This deep engagement makes them excel, not just their innate talent. Dr Anders Ericsson calls it a 10,000 hour rule of practice. 

Lesson 2: Prodigies use their genetic inclinations to make a difficult choice of domain

In the case of prodigies, they are lucky. They automatically chose their output, be it mathematics, music or chess due to their genetic inclinations. 

For many of the talented students, they face a difficult task of choosing from too many outputs or domains. It is the problem of prosperity. For instance, i met a student last month who had an excellent logical ability. But, he was faced with a difficult choice of deepening his logical ability either in accounts, engineering or medicine.  
This highlights the importance of conative traits for excelling. Conative traits are traits that enable us to identify the purpose of life, or the passion that we bring to the work, or the significance that we attach to our job or people. Conative traits, if available, help us make this choice easily. But when they are absent, they make our life very difficult. As we have seen earlier, one has to consciously attempt to find meaning in life. Without this meaning, i have observed that many executives, despite their monetary success, falter in life. 

Lesson 3. Prodigy's talent is not just developing one 'skill'. 

Although a violinist can achieve brilliance on the violin by practicing for hours every day, they also need other personal traits like emotions, for instance, to make their violin meaningful. As the violinist Yehudi Menuhin once said, “Maturity, in music and in life, has to be earned by living".  Without the development of these traits, talent cannot be sustained. See this longer list of prodigies. How many of you knew them for their excellent sustained work? .

This is important to remember. None of the talent today is just one skill. As we have seen in earlier blog, our talent gift consists of character traits that have to be nurtured and developed. Traits of concentration, internal motivation, creativity, extraversion version intraversion are as important in excelling in life than the skill. Without these traits, you cannot sustain the excellence of your narrow skill , be it selling, teaching, programming, cooking, playing or even managing. 

Lesson 4: Prodigies require both active and passive support from the external system

A musical prodigy, for instance, requires both active and passive support from his parents. Without active support, the child will never gain access to an instrument, or the technical training is required to develop the talent. But inactive support from parents is equally necessary. They also require emotional nurturance that enables a musician to achieve mature expression.

For instance, we think that talents like computing can grow only if the students has access a computer. But this is partly true. He also must have strong links to a community of developers who can give him problems, who can share their difficulties with him, who can offer the window of other technologies. Without this community of developers, which can now be done without any physical proximity, this support is required for another skill. That is why a good college is very important to develop your skill. 

Lesson 5: Prodigies develop their talent due to many lucky factors acting together in synch

Based on detailed interviews with a number of prodigies and their family members, David Henry Feldman and Lynn Goldsmith concluded that the prodigy phenomenon is the result of a lucky coincidence of many factors. 

This includes many factors such as :  availability of the domain in the prodigy's geographical location ( if Bill Gates was not born in US, his programming skill would not been known to us), healthy social/emotional development of the child in the family, the gender and birth order ( is the person the first child or second child) that help the prodigy to develop his interest, availability of education in the place of location, cultural support and public recognition for developing the talent ( imagine a musical child born to a family in Africa where physical survival is the first battle), material support from family members, at least one parent completely committed to the prodigy's development, family traditions that favour the prodigy's development (imagine the development of mathematical talent in the family of lawyers) and historical forces, events, and trends in the society during the development phase of the child. 


All the factors of their talent development work in synch for a prodigy. In a normal individual, they are rarely in synch.

Some factors work late ( you find a good teacher in drawing only when you are in 10th class), some factors are absent ( you lay hands on computer only when you reach college), or some factors do not seem to be available as and when required ( like you go into a college where you find a group who works with you all the time!).

Or conative trait like passion develops late in a life, or development of a significant trait like extraversion develops late ( for instance, you become outspoken only when you go in college), or an important personal trait like "We cannot impact outcomes in life" requires a failure to emerge ( for instance, failing to get into army or some important incident of failure). 

In other words, the difference between a prodigy's development and our development is very little. The difference is in the timing - the timing of having the right trait at the right time. 

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